Shawn Maxam discusses the importance of code-switching in White America.
I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy, …I mean, that’s a storybook, man.
-Joe Biden (describing then Senator Barack Obama)
I am often told how eloquent and well-spoken I am. This is weird compliment to receive when you are in your early thirties because I am pretty sure any well-educated person is fairly articulate. But I am a dark-skinned Black man so there’s a subconscious expectation that I would talk like either a stereotypical male of color. Fortunately I learned the important skill of code-switching in my late teens.
Code switching: the practice of moving back and forth between two languages or between two dialects or registers of the same language. In America this would be considered the ability to switch between “Ebonics” aka Black dialect and plain English. I take exception with the labels given to different American dialects but the concept is valid.
There is an assumption I should only be able to talk in “Black” vernacular. The notion of a Black dialect is problematic because region, class and education all play a vital role in a person’s dialect. The phrase “case quarter” is primarily used on the East Coast whereas Southern Americans may be unfamaliar with the term.
Irregardless of the nuances of language I did realize that I would have to learn to talk in a comforting non-threatening tone when I was around white people. The importance of this approach started when I was a teenager. I was often harassed by the local police force in my native Brooklyn. I knew I couldn’t present any antagonistic forms of speech or body language if I didn’t want to be arrested, assaulted or even killed.
Altering the average person’s perception is very important in disarming misconceptions and ingrained prejudices about individuals of color. Black people are stereotyped as loud, angry, lazy, uncooperative and vulgar. In order to be taken seriously as a candidate for any professional position or to be even heard in a casual conversation I need to be very careful in the manner in which I speak. It’s a sad but true realization that illustrates the problematic nature of assimilation and how the culture of the “other” is seen as threatening in our country.
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Flickr image via it_never_sleeps